In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, Donald Trump speaks during a rally protesting the Electoral College certification of Joe Biden as president in Washington. Credit: Evan Vucci / AP

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump calls the 2020 presidential election “the real Big Lie,” a crooked race tilted against him by Democrats via “voter irregularities and fraud on a massive and determinative scale.” His critics accuse him of gaslighting voters, claiming he and his GOP loyalists are planning a 2024 heist.

As he teases another White House bid, Trump on Sunday taunted Democrats in a statement, claiming — without providing evidence — “they cannot argue that facts in states including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, New Hampshire, and others such as New Mexico, where the Democrat Secretary of State changed the voting laws without legislative approval just prior to the Election, making it virtually impossible for the Republican presidential candidate to win.”

His critics warn he and other Republicans are making moves not to help voters stay healthy during a pandemic while voting, but to give the next GOP nominee a get-out-of-jail-free card. Republicans have revamped election canvassing boards in Michigan. Candidates who espoused Trump-like 2020 fraud claims won races to become elections judges and inspectors in Pennsylvania. And there are movements in Colorado and other potential swing states for conservatives to apply for positions in key elections offices.

Analysts and former officials warn of a scenario during a tight 2024 vote count where a senior state official in Georgia, or perhaps Arizona or Wisconsin, refuses to certify the Democratic nominee’s apparent Electoral College win there. That same state official would be hand-picked for this moment by Trump and his loyalists. In this hypothetical — for now — future, Trump appears publicly soon after, declaring victory and promising revenge against anyone who opposed him when his second term begins in two months.

But outside the Mar-a-Lago ballroom, a constitutional crisis already is developing.

“It’s Trump’s not-so-secret weapon, if he does run again,” said former Rep. David Jolly, R-Florida. “The proper way to view all of this is through a presidential cycle lens. Because it’s always about him.”

“The goal here is to prevent certification of Electoral College votes in enough places that could help Trump get to 270,” Jolly said, referring to the number of electoral votes needed to secure the presidency. “It’s not simply a legal matter after this kind of scenario. Sure, the Constitution is there to protect us, but in a situation like that, which Trump tried to make happen in 2020, it’s anybody’s … guess what happens next.”

The 45th president and still-leader of the GOP has endorsed nearly two dozen 2020 election skeptics in secretary of state and state attorneys general races — many in battlegrounds.

This remake of some states’ elections processes, notably, has gone forward without a hard answer from Trump about whether he will run again.

“This is a lot bigger than just Trump. After Jan. 6, he realized the path back to the White House is through state houses and state governments. The legwork to a successful overturning of elections goes through statehouses,” said David Pepper, author of the book “Laboratories of Autocracy.”

“The whole right-wing foundation is behind this. If Trump doesn’t run, it’s the same threat as if he does run,” he said in an interview. “The tools are in place to really threaten a free and fair election. But it doesn’t just up and disappear if Trump disappears.”

Retiring Ohio GOP Rep. Anthony Gonzalez calls it the “most difficult challenge for our country.”

Trump “has evaluated what went wrong on Jan. 6” and is making moves to install “the right people to make the right decision in the most difficult times,” Gonzalez told CNN on Nov. 14.

“Why is it that he wasn’t able to steal the election? Who stood in his way? Every single American institution is just run by people,” Gonzalez said. “And you need the right people to make the right decision in the most difficult times. He’s going systematically through the country and trying to remove those people and install people who are going to do exactly what he wants them to do.”

Those who see an effort to possibly overturn the 2024 Electoral College certification process point to these and other moves chronicled by the Brookings Institution and Brennan Center for Justice:

— Georgia’s Legislature voted along party lines to remove the secretary of state — who resisted Trump’s pleas to “find votes” last November — from the process in favor of a hand-picked official.

— Texas’ Republican governor signed a GOP-written measure into law that targets election officials and poll workers with penalties, while installing measures that pare voting access.

— “Nineteen states have passed laws making it harder to vote. Many of these changes targeted early voting and absentee ballots,” which typically favor Democrats, according to Elaine Kamarck of Brookings.

Yet, Matthew Germer of the conservative R Street Institute examined those measures and diagnosed “relatively benign changes” that have been “over-politicized” because of so much focus on Trump’s “stolen election” claims.

But Jolly said “what these moves do is put certification in the hands of officials with a partisan affiliation, not a constitutional affiliation,” adding: “A big theme in virtually all of these changes is the handcuffing of local election officials … and consolidating power.”

Hans von Spakovsky, the Heritage Foundation’s Election Reform Initiative manager, calls the 2024 warnings “much ado about nothing.”

“How in the world is any kind of change going to favor one side of another?” he said. “I don’t care which official is doing the certification, they have the duty under the Constitution to ensure the election was properly carried out — meaning everyone who is eligible is given the ability to vote. So it doesn’t matter the political party of any official.”

When pressed during a telephone interview about GOP-pushed changes since the 2020 election, von Spakovsky essentially said Democrats started it.

“You mean like the Democrats who started the Secretaries of State Project, like Soros?” von Spakovsky said, referring to a tax-exempt political organization linked to wealthy progressives like billionaire George Soros in the early 2010s that helped Democrats win around a dozen state positions involved in elections.

“It was the progressive left that was the first to put together something like this,” he said. “A lot of those folks started waiving state rules. You want to talk about people not willing to adhere to election laws, see the Secretaries of State Project. … They’re trying to make people think there’s something strange or nefarious going on when this has been going on, from the left, for years.”

In a Nov. 18 statement, Trump praised a GOP Wisconsin state representative for introducing a resolution to decertify President Joe Biden’s 2020 win there, adding: “Only one state senator needs to cosponsor the resolution for it to be put to a vote in each chamber. Which American Patriot from the State Senate will step forward?”

Trump and conservative media outlets have repeated such false and misleading statements so often that two in three Republicans believe the election was stolen, according to consistent polling results.

“The play is to get enough loyalists to express it over and over and over again. They are trying to make everything look legit when it’s not,” Pepper said. “So, to more and more people, it feels legal even though just a few years back, people would have said, ‘That’s nuts. You can’t do that.’

“That’s essentially what they were trying to do with Pence on Jan. 6: convince him that it’s legal,” he said, referring to former Vice President Mike Pence and the White House effort to push him to not certify Biden’s Electoral College win. “The scary thing is Trump and others just figured all this out too late in 2020. They’ve learned their lesson and will have had years to put all the parts in place.”

Official Washington is watching from afar, but distracted by its intense focus, as usual, on itself — read: the recent messy process of passing bipartisan infrastructure and Democratic-crafted social spending legislation.

“In Washington, it’s all BIF and BBB all the time,” Jolly said. “But outside the Beltway is a much bigger story. Much bigger.”

Story by John T. Bennett, CQ-Roll Call.